Saturday, October 08, 2011

Bonjour, hello


Montreal (or Montréal if you're Francophone) is the ultimate Boolean logic city; every communication is a study in or/and/not. French and English speakers cohabit; most French speakers also speak English in varying degrees of fluency; many English speakers also know enough French to get by with. I'd think it's almost impossible not to be bi-lingual to some extent, since almost all signage and official pronouncements are in both languages.

After a few days in Montreal this week on a business trip, I seemed to hear a simultaneous translation running in my head, regardless of whether I was speaking in English or my mediocre French. How do you know in which language to address someone you are not acquainted with? I asked a (native English-speaking) Montreal resident. "Bonjour/hello," he said. Yes, but what then? Well, presumably you get in return either a "bonjour" or a "hello." But if you pronounce "bonjour" correctly -- the "n" barely sounded -- the other person might assume you are Francophone when you're not really; likewise, I suppose, "hello" might mean "I am trying to be polite, but I'm not comfortable in English."

Montrealers or Montréalais seem to have more or less devised an unwritten code about the language situation that works for them. I often heard people switching from French to English and vice versa several times in the same conversation.

The system doesn't work flawlessly. For instance, the hotel I stayed at can't decide if it is The Queen Elizabeth (as the sign on the facade indicates, and as it has been known throughout its lifetime) or Le Reine Elizabeth. That too is an anomaly. Le is the masculine article, while Reine (Queen) is, obviously, feminine. To anyone who knows French, le reine sounds bizarre. Presumably it is considered that le refers to hotel (actually, hôtel in French).

I think the people of Montreal or Montréal must have a good  sense of humor about the whole business.

While it's tempting to say that this relative linguistic peace shows that bi-lingualism is no big deal and we Yanks shouldn't make a fuss about our government rulers demanding that Spanish be a second American language, you have to remember that English speakers and French speakers have lived side by side in Quebec (or Québec) for 300 years. That's a long time to learn to adjust, and it's been a painful process, with plenty of tension even in recent years. We're insane to invite similar problems.

One other thing. It's often said that French Canadians speak "bad" French (a patois, or with a grating accent). That may be so outside of sophisticated Montreal, but to my ear the speech was close enough to classic French. And the Canadians are more conservative about their French than the supposedly fussy French themselves. In Montreal it is stationnement, please, not le parking. And they are very precise, even in the words crawling at the bottom of the TV screen, concerning accent marks -- as in dépôt -- which I understand the French French are increasingly careless about.

More observations from Montreal in the next posting. Stay tuned.



zazie said...

Bonjour à vous,
This used to be perfect French ; it was surely much nicer to the ear than the current "salut!", which most people are unable to link with the Latin "ave" anyway.
"Nos cousins du Québec" do NOT speak "bad" French ; quite the contrary in fact! They have even kept the pronounciation their ancestors brought to " les Amériques" ; their being conservative is something precious : it protects the language from the damage inflected by what Huxley called "modernity snobbery" ; imagine this text : " un jeune TRADER, laisse sa BIKE dans le PARKING du BUILDING où se trouve son OFFICE ; il ouvre son ATTACHE CASE tout en parlant avec le LIFTIER dans l'ascenseur, pour lui montrer son I PAD, un MUST qu'il vient de s'offrir...." French-Canadians could all translate this into standard French ; I'll bet that most French (in France) could not!
The French are no longer "fussy" about their language ; I admit that I may be sometimes a little intolerant about the lexical eccentricities of "Franglais". One day, I'll tell you about the cold-blooded murder of our grammar.

zazie said...

Ravie de vous revoir,
(a nice phrase, isn't it?)
About your hotel, you have understood rightly the article : "le" refers to "hôtel", not to the queen of course ; you have the same rule about ships : "LE Normandie", "LE Queen Mary".